‘Framing Agnes’ lets our trans ancestors tell their own stories

Director Chase Joynt and historian Jules Gill-Peterson on the present resonance of their groundbreaking documentary

In a coincidence straight out of fiction, I caught Framing Agnes’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this January, just days before my own gender-affirming top surgery.

The film looks at a series of case files from Harold Garfinkel’s 1950s gender clinic and the trans patients who accessed the clinic’s services. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson guides the audience through the historical case files of figures, including the eponymous Agnes Torres. Interspersed throughout, the film’s director, Chase Joynt, alongside a slew of trans actors—play out Garfinkel’s actual interviews with patients. Some appear as if they are on a 1950s TV talk show; others in vignettes of their daily lives.

The film uses openly trans actors including Zackary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards and Stephen Ira to embody the real people captured in Garfinkel’s interviews, further expanding our understanding of their lives and motivations. 

It’s unlike any film I’ve seen before, a groundbreaking hybrid of history, documentary and fiction. And watching the stories of my trans ancestors while mentally preparing for my own gender-affirming treatment in 2022 was a stark reminder of its resonance in this moment, of how much has changed and how much persists over time. 

I’ve reflected a lot on my experience accessing gender-affirming care, the continuing onslaught of dangerous anti-trans legislation in the U.S. and the film over these past few months—in particular, how the lives of those depicted in the film directly connect to my life today

It’s something on the filmmakers’ minds too. Ahead of Framing Agnes’s Canadian premiere at Hot Docs this week, I spoke to Joynt and Gill-Peterson about the making of the film, trans joy and why the film has such currency right now.

Let’s start with how Framing Agnes came to be. How did you get from reading these files of Garfinkel’s interviews with trans people in the 50s to making a feature film that was screened at Sundance?

Chase Joynt: I received a fellowship to work with my friend Kristin Schulte at the University of Chicago back in 2013. And part of the requirements of that fellowship was that an artist and an academic come together around a set of shared questions and ultimately teach a class. We taught a class called The Politics of Narrative Construction, where we were pulling from sociological interview theory, and we used the case study of Agnes as a prime example. 

It was immediately made evident to us how electric the case study was. We started experimenting with different kinds of performance and writing around the case to unsettle the ways in which we had come to know and understand Agnes, and this particular kind of institutional history. In 2019, we made a short film version of the project. And you know, I say this with a ton of love for the short film—we made it in one room with the clothing that we already owned, on credit cards and favours of friends, and we really treated the opportunity as an experiment. We loved being on the circuit with the short film and what it did for us was it allowed a kind of proof—a way to say “this is what’s possible.” If we had a little bit more money, it might look better, or it might sound better, or we might be able to bring in other collaborators. And so it was from that place that we started developing the feature.

 

Jules Gill-Peterson: A lot of the feature film had already been shot and conceived and worked on, and then the pandemic happened. Interestingly enough, that’s when I came into the project. Chase and I first started talking over Zoom, in that weird twilight era of the first lockdown. Initially it was sort of a take-stock moment—what do you do when a project you’ve been working on for so long has to be put on hold? And Chase very wisely suspected that it could be an opportunity to really think about what it means to get a film like this right. So I think there’s a bigger meta story here about how sometimes you have to take time with really complicated things. At first, we were just talking, with me as a historian. I had no particular idea that I was going to become more involved with the film. But from there it snowballed in a way that resulted in me eventually becoming the narrator. 

What was the production process like: making this complicated film in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Joynt: A project like this requires an extensive and ongoing investment in editing and experimentation. And so we started working and assembling. The film is working in a variety of different modes simultaneously. And as a result, there are endless possibilities for the ways in which you could approach a story like this. 

One of the things that I like to say is that we continued to write the film together, even after it had been shot. I was editing the film long-distance, and I was on an iPad, leaning against a wall, looking at the computer monitor of the editor. It was very pressurized and very difficult to finish a film in those contexts, but because we are an all-hands-on-deck multi-authorial team; also, there were always multiple brains and multiple eyes synthesizing the cut in various phases.

Much of the on-screen talent you include in the film, like Angelica Ross or Jen Richards, are basically household names in trans film. What did the actors bring to the project? 

CJ: We didn’t cast a fishing line out into a pond that we knew nothing about. We very strategically approached people that we knew, based on the resonances between their lives and the histories of those that we were reckoning with through this kind of archival find. The process of inviting them to the film was also an invitation to collaborate. It’s also not lost on me that we started shooting with some of our cast, many years ago, before perhaps before the turn of them becoming household names. And so there’s something very useful and very trans-amorous to me about those knowledges and those legacies.

Gill-Peterson: I think part of what our film shows is what trans talent means. Each of these people, each of these incredible actors, have been finally getting their roses left and right for the things that they can do that no one else can do. They understand, on an interesting, complicated level, the stakes of these people’s lives all those decades ago. Because, as trans people, we are still walking around on this earth, not just with that legacy encoded into us, but facing many of the same barriers and challenges. 

The fundamental situation of the film, which is about being put on screen under the spotlight or in the frame, and not being able to exit—that’s not something that has departed from trans life. But because each of these actors has figured out how to bring their presence to the centre of the work that they do, they wield an incredible power that I think is just actually very palpable. And so I really want to call that trans talent. I think there’s something about the genius of each of these performers, a certain power that I think trans people wield because of our shared and different versions of our common historical experience.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the connections between the film and this current moment, particularly around medical transition and legislative attacks on it. 

Gill-Peterson: The political situation of trans people today is significantly worse and more dangerous than it was in the 1950s—just hands-down legally and policy-wise. What the film is showing us … is that we are facing the challenge of today with all of these people [from history having our back]. 

They’re not just having our back—they are part of our historical DNA. We have the strength of them. We have the insight of them; we have the resilience of them. We have the knowledge of how every single trans person who had to figure out how to get hormones or how to get surgery or how to survive the police or how to get, you know, access to what they need, how to stay safe in their family or community. We inherit all of that, too. I think part of what the film asks us to do is think about how we can make those histories live. Let’s breathe that air. Let’s tap into the energy that we need to not just survive what’s going on today, but to turn around and say, you’re done. This is it. This is the end, no more of these attacks. We’re going to turn things around and demand just that much more.

We are a product of that history. And we are not defined by anyone who wants to try and take away our access to living a life worth living. And that’s the enduring message I think of every single person we meet in Framing Agnes: that trans people understand in a way almost no one else does or can what it means to make a life worth living.

This is unlike any other film you’d see at Sundance or Hot Docs. I’m curious about what you think the film means for the future of history-making and filmmaking. 

Joynt: I love that question. I’m going to borrow a phrase from Jules from a Q&A many weeks ago. She started by saying “time’s up on certain kinds of representation.” And I feel formally that there’s something very significant and resonant there. Time’s up on the talking-head documentary that positions an expert as one to come in and report on a subject about which they claim to know more than their audience. 

One of the things that we do strategically and formally in the film is invest in recording technologies as a way to think about intimacy and alienation. What does it mean that we feel more connected to a more hyper-saturated image? What does it mean that we feel outside of a black-and-white frame that’s positioned always authoritatively over someone’s shoulder? Part of that work is thinking about how our film can show you where power is coming from, how power is operating in a room, the role that the camera plays and the role that the edit plays in negotiating those boundaries. We can bake winks and nods into the film, so that if you’re on the inside, you get what’s going on. And the times where you’re feeling frustrated means that it might not be for you, or it might be actually more about you than what’s happening on screen. 

That’s where I love being in these conversations with Jules too, because Jules is a real conspirator and collaborator in that sense in the film. Jules is the person to whom we attach, whom we trust to take us on a journey through this archival material. But what are all the ways that Jules is also starting to say, “But are you sure? How are you feeling here? Why are we feeling this way together?” As we join Jules as a kind of archival subject participant, how do we then recognize the ways that she is also on the same talk-show stage as everyone else, even if we haven’t totally placed her there. 

Gill-Peterson: If I think about a documentary as a genre: Hot Docs, Sundance—that broader media sphere in which we’re living—there is a relationship to work produced by minorities that’s actually incredibly self-congratulatory. It’s a profoundly assimilationist and kind of acquisition-driven model that says, “I am bringing you beneficiently into the inner circle. But I’m not changing the circle so much as who’s in it. I’m not changing the genre of representation in the first place.”

I think part of what Framing Agnes comes to say very organically is just “no, absolutely not.” We’re here to fundamentally change how we tell stories, how everyone tells stories, not just how we tell stories about trans people. But because trans people have been so viciously misrepresented in media, and have been consumed through genres like documentary for so long, we’re really good at taking the genre and the form, turning it inside out and making it do something that it has not been doing to this point. We’re not here on a diversity and inclusion rubric. We’re not here to be smiled upon and told that we’ve made it. We’re here to say, “oh, no, no, we’ve always been making it. We’ve been making it on our own, but we’ve been making it better.” 

I’m being unapologetic in my description of this because I think the film is proudly unapologetic, and I really hope if nothing else, right for other creators out there that they feel seen and honoured by that energy and feel galvanized because you do not need to apologize or explain or ask for permission to do good work. You should do it and you should waltz in with the full competence and pride that comes from that brilliance and let it transform those institutions that are lucky enough to have you there. 

Has anything surprised you about the film’s reception since Sundance?

Joynt: Just as a trans person, I will say, talking with other trans people about this and watching their reactions and just sharing the moments of glee, I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. 

One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on a lot as we move out into the festival circuit in a variety of different ways, both online and in-person, is the extraordinary gift of Sundance having gone online. Even though we were all devastated and had really good outfits, we benefited so sincerely and so greatly from an open-access opportunity where not only the people who were going to be in Park City were present. It really set the terms set the tone, and we’re in circulation differently on account of that access. 

I remember what trans Twitter was like on the day of the premiere. Everybody was talking about it. It was such a good feeling. 

Joynt: Yeah, it was really cool. 

What comes next for the film, as it continues to make the festival circuit?

Joynt: There’s definitely the technical way to answer that question, which is about sales and distribution and festivals. But I’ll answer it differently. We deeply recognize the film and hope that it is a usable object that continues to transform and shift in tone and shape, based on its circulation. And so my most enduring desire is that it lives and is available and accessible in ways that feel meaningful. And when it reaches its limits, and people need to transform it into something else, or discard or attach it elsewhere—that this kind of moment, movement and momentum continues because we don’t understand the project to have a strong beginning, middle and an end. We understand it to be an intervention into multiple conversations that are always already ongoing and resolvable. And therefore, we have to treat it with a light touch. 

Gill-Peterson: It’s a profound honour for this film to be out in the world because now that sense of collaboration that built it gets to extend so far out, that in the end there’s no limit on how many people can contribute to how we think through what we put on screen. It’s an unfinished story—Framing Agnes technically started production in the 1950s and I’m not sure it will ever finish production. That’s part of the wisdom of the film and the people who unintentionally left us behind something of who they were. 

I often think of history as a riddle and riddles don’t always have to be answered. Sometimes you find the answer, and it doesn’t quite tell you the truth that you thought it did. But it gives you something to hold on to. And I think that’s what this film will continue to be, wherever it travels and whomever it reaches.

Interview has been edited for length and for clarity.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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